I hope people will read about these really remarkable characters. ...
Who is it who said our history is as dull as ditchwater? I'm telling you it isn't. Ken Cuthbertson, author of 1945: The Year That Made Modern Canada
People criticized him for not fighting in the war, but I had great respect for the man. He wasn't a coward — he tried to join up twice and was turned down because of his hockey injuries. Author Ken Cuthbertson on hockey legend Maurice (Rocket) Richard
1945: The Year That Made Modern Canada Ken Cuthbertson Harpercollins
The indictment is harsh, but for historian Ken Cuthbertson, the facts are irrefutable. Canada's longest serving prime minister was a racist.
Cuthbertson levels the charge near the end of his new book, 1945: The Year That Made Modern Canada. But such are the contradictions inherent in the character of William Lyon Mackenzie King that Cuthbertson also reiterates the vital wartime role that Canada played under its Liberal PM'S often maddening leadership.
Indeed, Cuthbertson goes so far as to argue that, without Canada, a beleaguered Britain might have fallen during the darkest days of the 1939-1945 conflict. He argues that “without Canadian food, war materials and financial aid, which included $4 billion in forgivable loans, Britain might well have suffered defeat ...”
Months after writing these words, Cuthbertson still stands by this assertion.
“We don't seem to have a real appreciation these days of the role that Canada played in the war,” he says by phone from his home in Kingston, Ont. “We had a massive military complex. The First Canadian Army in Europe was over 300,000 men, and when you think about it, that's astounding for a country of 11 million people. In total we had a million men and women in uniform during the war.”
And by the end of the war, Canada boasted the third largest navy in the world and had been essential in keeping vital Atlantic transportation lanes open.
“Canada was certainly expected to support Britain during the war,” Cuthbertson says. “Without Canadian experts of raw materials, without Canadian loans, without Lend-lease arrangements with Roosevelt, when the Americans had Canadian industry turning out war materials for England, it couldn't have happened ... and the convoys were the lifeline.”
Yet all this happened under a national leader who had been open in his disdain for the military and who once wrote a fan letter to Adolf Hitler. King's unglamorous presence hovers, goblin-like, over a book that sees 1945 as a seminal moment in our history — the year that Canada came of age.
In seeking to illuminate a time that is now three-quarters of a century distant, Cuthbertson reintroduces readers to some of its key players. They include almost forgotten military figures such as Gen. Henry Duncan Crerar, commander of the First Canadian Field Army, and Rear Admiral Leonard W. Murray, entrusted with keeping the Atlantic convoys running.
And there are interesting wild cards ranging from millionaire tycoon E.P. Taylor to Montreal Canadiens superstar Maurice (Rocket) Richard, whose prowess made him a hero in Quebec and an object of resentment among English Canadians upset with the French-speaking province for what they perceived as often lukewarm support of the war effort.
In seeking to evoke the mood of a nation, Cuthbertson doesn't ignore what he calls “the great divide” separating French and English Canada at the time, and reminds readers that 1945 was the year when Hugh Maclennan's influential novel, Two Solitudes, was published. Cuthbertson, 69, looks back on his own childhood and remembers that when he was a youngster in the 1950s, Richard was still a lightning rod for French-english differences — and unfairly so.
“People criticized him for not fighting in the war, but I had great respect for the man. He wasn't a coward — he tried to join up twice and was turned down because of his hockey injuries.”
The then-prime minister occupies his own peculiar bubble — and not just because he communed with the spirits of his deceased mother and dog. In an age of Justin-brand charisma, King's political longevity seems improbable if not preposterous.
“Short and pudgy as a dumpling, King was bushy-browed and jowly,” Cuthbertson writes. Yet he was in office for a total of 25 years. The snapshot images tantalize: “crafty, cunningly ruthless in a machiavellian way ... a master in the art of backroom wheeling and dealing ... hopelessly insecure ... a tactless bully ... a lonely old bachelor, a prude ... his mercenary behaviour was justified, he believed, because he thought he had been divinely ordained to lead Canada to greatness.”
“He was weird — really!” Cuthbertson says now. “He was a master politician — yet he dithered, dithered, dithered until he was forced to make a decision. And behind the scenes he was quite ready to put the stiletto in somebody's back and twist it when he had the opportunity.”
Cuthbertson has no compunction in labelling King a racist. The book is unrelenting in citing the “appalling” things that happened on his watch — the turning away of desperate East Indian and Jewish immigrants at Canadian ports, the resettlement and incarceration of Japanese Canadians in British Columbia, the continuing operation of residential schools for Indigenous children, the postwar imposition of immigration quotas on Blacks and Jews.
“You shake your head in wonder,” Cuthbertson says now, “but he was a product of his time and nobody thought twice about it.”
Cuthbertson finds multiple reasons for seeing 1945 as a watershed year for Canada. In April, King and a Canadian delegation to the historic signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco; May saw the Canada First army accepting Germany's formal surrender in The Netherlands; in June the Liberals were returned to power federally although King lost his Saskatchewan seat and could only return to Parliament after winning a byelection; with the country was veering to the left politically, Canada's Conservative party prudently decided to add the word “Progressive” to its name.
It was also the year when the first baby bonus cheques were delivered in July, signalling a decisive moment in the emergence of a social welfare safety net. The Rocket would score 50 goals in a single season. The first atom bomb would be dropped, fuelled by Canadian uranium. And in December Igor Gouzenko, a nondescript cipher clerk in Ottawa's Soviet embassy, would abscond with incriminating documents revealing Russian espionage operations — and in so doing would touch off the Cold War. And if that wasn't enough, the economy was booming.
It may be a truism to suggest that people make history, but Cuthbertson is troubled that so many major players in the Canadian story have faded into obscurity.
“So I hope people will read about these really remarkable characters. And they are remarkable — everyone of them. Who is it who said our history is as dull as ditchwater? I'm telling you it isn't.”
Author Ken Cuthbertson's new book argues that Canada truly came of age in 1945.